In Defense Of The Queen

Amid the fallout from Boris Johnson’s decision to seek a prorogation of Parliament next month, some have criticized the Queen for accepting Johnson’s advice. While this anger is understandable given the stakes, it’s ultimately misplaced.

As I’ve said many times on this blog, one of the fundamental principles of Britain’s constitution is that the Sovereign acts on the advice of their responsible ministers. This is vital because there are few formal checks on the Monarch’s power, which means there would be no easy way to rein them in if they started acting independently of the government. If the Sovereign is presented with unpalatable advice, they can protest (in private), but if ministers persist in offering that advice, the Monarch must ultimately accept it (or be prepared to find new ministers).[1] Asking the Monarch to substitute their judgment for that of the Prime Minister is a dangerous proposition.[2]

If Her Majesty had refused Johnson’s advice, he might have resigned in protest. While many people would be delighted by such an outcome, it could usher in a constitutional nightmare. The Queen would need to find an alternative government, and given the parliamentary arithmetic, it’s hard to see how that could work. Jeremy Corbyn would be the leading candidate for Prime Minister since he’s the Leader of the Opposition, but the events of the last few weeks suggest that he’d have trouble finding enough support from other parties to sustain even a brief, caretaker government.[3]

It’s not clear that anyone else stands a better chance of being able to form a government, either. Thanks to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, the new Prime Minister couldn’t simply take office and request an immediate dissolution. They could try to trigger an early General Election under section 2(1) of the FTPA, but that would require the support of two-thirds of MPs to pass. The Conservatives might well table a vote of no confidence in the new administration, and if it succeeded, they could be returned to office. If that happened, the Queen would find herself in the same boat as William IV, who dismissed Viscount Melbourne as Prime Minister only to have to reappoint him a short while later. That’s not a good position for a constitutional monarch to be in.  

Finally, it must be noted that there would be no need for eleventh-hour drama if MPs hadn’t been so feckless when it comes to Brexit. They’ve had plenty of opportunities to rule out a no-deal Brexit once and for all over the years, but they conspicuously failed to do so. Simply expressing disapproval via non-binding motions isn’t enough. If MPs don’t want a no-deal Brexit, they must ultimately vote for a deal or else cancel Brexit altogether. Politicians are the ones responsible for this mess, not the Palace.

Boris Johnson put the Queen in an invidious position when he asked her to prorogue Parliament. Her decision to accept his advice may be unpopular, but it was constitutionally correct.  

[1] Anne Twomey documents a good example of this dynamic in The Chameleon Crown: The Queen and Her Australian Governors (Sydney: The Federation Press, 2006). In a nutshell, the Australian state governments wanted to advise the Queen directly on the appointment of state governors instead of having to go through the British Foreign Office. Her Majesty was unhappy with this proposal, as she feared that she might get drawn into conflicts between the state and federal governments. But when the Australian federal government made it clear that they supported the states, she yielded and accepted their recommendation to allow direct advice from the states. For further information, see chapters 19 and 20 of The Chameleon Crown.

[2] There may be some situations where the Monarch must say no, regardless of the consequences (of course, if you ask five constitutional experts what those scenarios are, you’re liable to get five different answers!). But Johnson’s prorogation gambit evidently didn’t meet didn’t that threshold. The Palace probably noted that, even with prorogation, MPs can still fight a no-deal Brexit. They’ll have to work really hard to pull it off, and they’ll have to be far more unified than they have been until now, but it’s still possible.  

[3] It’s more than a little ironic that many of the folks who complain that Johnson is an ‘unelected Prime Minister’ don’t seem to mind replacing him with someone who is also unelected.

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1 Response to In Defense Of The Queen

  1. Mark Roth says:

    I believe the Queen acted 100% correctly, she had and has no choice.

    I would prefer that some standard were in place to prevent a PM in Johnson’s situation, where it is possible that he doesn’t actually have the confidence of the House to do this, should be tasked to prove that he has the backing. But I am not sure that the Queen just asking him that is a good idea.

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